Books Front Matter

Publishers’ Responsibility in the New Age of Book Piracy

Piracy belongs in the pages of books, not in their creation.

Unfortunately, generative AI permits new-age piracy that could jeopardize future narratives before they even make it to print. It’s a new wrinkle on an old story — and one authors and publishers must contend with.

The rise of AI and ChatGPT in literature

The use of generative AI (GenAI) exploded in 2023, and the publishing industry witnessed a remarkable surge in AI-generated content. While GenAI invites infinite storytelling possibilities, it also raises some concerns — particularly about the machine learning and language processing models it was built on.

ChatGPT, for example, has demonstrated astonishing capabilities in producing compelling narratives. But those stories aren’t the result of an author’s imagination. Rather, they’re the product of the vast array of material the AI was trained on. That’s why GenAI is liable to repurpose or adapt work that already exists: It’s the material these programs learn from. Publishers are already seeing an influx of text that AI “borrowed” from famous literary works that piecemeals characters, stories, concepts, writing styles, and other literary devices.

Plagiarism and the borrowing of popular works

That is piracy, albeit incidental. And though GenAI is itself blameless in this instance — and holds extraordinary potential for book lovers — its tendency to “borrow” highlights publishers’ responsibility to mark AI-generated content as such and give proper attribution to the GenAI models that create it.

Secondarily, publishers have an obligation to educate authors, whether established or aspiring, about how GenAI works. That background will help writers use the tech properly to generate story arcs and outlines, for instance, or refine characters, enhance dialog, or even just polish their authentic creative works — not pirate, even unknowingly, from other authors.

Editors have a role to play too. AI detection tools exist, but they’re a far cry from perfect. So publishers must employ editors with an eye for interpreting consistency within the material. By working with writers to avoid accidental plagiarism, editors provide a value-add service that benefits everyone.

Fostering a culture of responsible AI use and promoting the value of genuine human creativity in literature will help the industry walk the fine line between embracing technology and preserving creative integrity.

eBooks and digital piracy

Though GenAI-based piracy is making the headlines right now, other types of piracy are even more pervasive.

Perhaps the biggest threat is eBook piracy, or the unauthorized downloading and sharing of digital text, which costs publishers and writers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Theft of intellectual property reduces authors’ royalties and publishers’ revenue. Publishers can protect that intellectual property with digital rights management (DRM) technology that, though hardly foolproof, reduces the amount of eBook piracy or by using DRM alternatives such as online reading. And research has shown that dropping prices on certain titles or increasing compatibility among digital libraries and book lists can, in some instances, remove the incentive to steal.

Meanwhile, unscrupulous data companies are using GenAI to pirate existing works — frequently targeting fanfic — and publishing their revised work as new literature. In June and July, a Los Angeles law firm filed proposed class-action lawsuits that accuse Google, Microsoft, and OpenAI (the makers of ChatGPT) of theft. As of July 2023, writers and other artists had filed 10 more lawsuits against AI companies, “accusing them of training their systems on artists’ creative work without consent,” according to a July 2023 New York Times article.

That piracy is not accidental, and it undermines the intellectual property of writers and publishers and reduces their income, which will reduce the number of books written, published, and read. What can publishers do? Current actions being taken include:

  • Charging AI companies for the data they use to train their GenAI
  • Banning the use of data-scraping on their platforms
  • Refusing to publish AI-generated work at all

The written word is valuable. That means piracy — whether plagiarism, scanning a print book to a PDF, eBook theft, or GenAI revision — will always be a problem for content creators. Solving that problem will grow more complex as technology evolves. To thwart it, writers need to work with a publisher that understands the factors contributing to piracy and has strategies to address them proactively.

Contact your Sheridan representative for a consultation to discuss how Sheridan can streamline your publishing processes.

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